Local hero

Whittier’s Ramon Leon was an illegal immigrant; now he’s a citizen who’s spearheading Latino entrepreneurship

When Mexican President Vicente Fox visited Minneapolis recently, there was a sense of pride in the Latino community, and a sense that issues important to them would be discussed.

A mostly invisible community — the community of undocumented workers — was brought into the light, even though it made one of Fox’s guides, Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, uneasy.

Immigrants make a lot of Americans uneasy. There’s a feeling that this group takes more from America than it gives. It’s said that they take jobs and that their kids’ education, their health care, etc. drain tax dollars.

At one time, uneasy Americans might’ve pointed a finger at Ramon Leon. Leon, born and raised in Mexico City, illegally crossed the border near Tijuana, Mexico into the United States in 1987. He had studied economics at a Mexican university but came here for reasons familiar to many undocumented workers: to be near family already in the States and to find a job in the proverbial land of opportunity.

Today, Leon is an American citizen, executive director of the Whittier-based Latino Economic Development Center (LEDC), and owner of his own furniture upholstering company, also based in Whittier.

LEDC helps provide business plans and financial advice, and points potential business owners toward other nonprofits that provide grants and loans.

Economic Development Specialist John Flory said Leon has earned respect not just for his knowledge and commitment, but for his sacrifices.

"Ramon has a small business; he’s a third-generation upholsterer, but he has not put very much attention to his business. He has put more of his attention to developing an organization for Latino businesspeople and opportunities for new entrepreneurs," Flory said.

In the process, he added, Leon has "become a very significant leader of businesses. There are a lot of people who sort of pass themselves off as sort of the representative of a particular group, but Ramon has earned the respect of many Latino businesspeople. And I’m speaking primarily of immigrant businesspeople, because most of the entrepreneurs are immigrants."

Leon’s personal path to citizenship wound through work visas, marriage to an American and patience with an immigration system he said is designed to keep people like him from joining American society.

Like the president of his former country, Leon argues forcefully that U.S. immigration policies do Americans more harm than good.

"Immigration laws are inflexible, obsolete and need to be changed," Leon said. "Why? We’re creating an invisible society in the United States. Those people are forced to work underground, they’re subject to abuses, their children don’t have access to education, they and their children don’t have access to medical care unless it’s a life-threatening emergency."

He points out that undocumented workers pay federal and state taxes, but can’t get refunds like legal workers can; they pay Social Security taxes into a system that will never cut them a check, and they pay sales taxes on every purchase, just as everyone else here does.

"We’re not a charge to this system. We contribute to the richness of this society," he said.

Heart of the beginning

Leon said the LEDC is "a continuation of work we started back in 1992 when we started forming our first Latino church here in Minneapolis, El Sagrado Corazon."

He and others in the Latino community "started organizing ourselves around different issues such as immigration, education and also economic development. We formed several teams towards solutions of those issues. The economic development, for example, ended up with the formation of Mercado Central."

Mercado Central is a member-owned cooperative at Bloomington Avenue & East Lake Street; a place Leon and others envisioned as an indoor mall of restaurants and other Latino-owned and -patronized businesses.

After the successful Mercado opened in 1999, Leon said he was repeatedly approached by Latinos interested in starting businesses elsewhere on Lake Street and throughout the Twin Cities area. Those requests eventually led to the birth late last year of the Latino Economic Development Center.

Said Leon, "When we opened the Mercado, I was personally amazed and surprised to see how many Latino intellectuals we had in our community. I thought we were wasting those skills, the Latino professionals. Because in the past, we didn’t have a place where Latino people could gather and share our experiences.

"In the process of building of Mercado Central, which took us almost four years, there were a lot of resources available. We didn’t have access to them because our people didn’t know about them because we didn’t know the system, we don’t understand the language."

That lead to LEDC. "We decided we wanted to have an organization where [Latinos] could also take responsibility," Leon said. "Show the people that we are also willing to take our responsibilities within society. We were not always going to rely on other people to take us by the hand and show us what we have to do.

"The only way was to empower people, train our people and take advantage of those more fortunate Latinos who are educated and put those skills to work on behalf of the entrepreneurial spirit of the newcomers."

LEDC is also a descendant of the Whittier Community Development Corp., a nonprofit that helps women and minorities in Whittier and Southwest get Small Business Administration loans and other business assistance. Its offices at 2845 Harriet Ave., also serve as LEDC’s home.

Other voices

John Flory is one of the people crucial to LEDC’s work. Flory, along with Leon and others, made Mercado Central come to life and founded LEDC.

Flory, an Anglo, grew up in Ecuador from the age of 5 to 12. He said his familiarity with the Latino community and with the mercados that serve as focal points for many Latin American towns are reasons why he devotes so much effort to helping the Latino community.

Flory said immigrants often are more motivated than the average person living here: they often go through ordeals of one sort or another to reach the U.S., and many of them are used to making the types of sacrifices needed to make businesses successful.

Leon has their respect, Flory said, because they know he’s both one of them and a role model; an immigrant who came here illegally but through perseverance has made a success of himself.

"He has built links to multiple organizations and political entities and has become a very good bridge between the Latino business community and say, for example, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party.

"Ramon met with President Fox when he was here and was one of the two Latino businesspeople who met with him face to face. How did he get that appointment? Through contacts with the Republican Party."

Still, Flory said Leon probably has better contacts with Minnesota’s Democratic U.S. Sens. Mark Dayton and the late Paul Wellstone.

"It’s difficult to be able to gain the confidence and trust of such diverse groups of people. There’s a pretty big gap between immigrant entrepreneurs and sort of the mainstream and Ramon is providing that link."

Carol Berde, executive vice president of the Minneapolis-based McKnight Foundation, agrees that Leon and the LEDC are providing crucial help to local Latinos. Her group is part of Payne-Lake Community Partners, an organization trying to help revitalize St. Paul’s Payne Avenue and Minneapolis’s Lake Street by encouraging minority business growth.

Said Berde of the LEDC, "They clearly are the place that Latino business owners go to for technical assistance and support of various kinds. But more than that, they have a real potential to play a role in making sure that Latino business owners are part of the decision-making process at neighborhood and city levels. I think they’ve done some of that already in, for example, some of the plans for the Sears site are the way they are because Latino business owners pointed out some of the weaknesses in some of the prior plans."

Jose Payan emigrated from Mexico City 20 years ago and now owns La Perle, a corn tortilla manufacturing company at Mercado Central. He said LEDC is helping his 30-employee business as it seeks to expand into another building.

"We’re trying to make it a bigger place, bigger production," Payan said of his five-year-old company.

He said LEDC helps "to do the paperwork, business plans, talking with banks, putting everything together for me. They make it easier for me. I get all the information they need and they put it together."

When asked if he could expand La Perle without the help of Leon and Flory and the LEDC, his answer is to the point: "Not really, no."

"What we are seeking is just what the first pilgrims were seeking," Leon said. "Greater opportunities, freedom, that’s all."